The shift in US foreign policy since Donald Trump was inaugurated as President has been extraordinary.
Trump has shown little patience or interest in the rules-based international order established by the US government after World War 2.
There have been high-profile withdrawals from the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate change agreement, and bilateral snubs, such as criticism of Germany’s export sector.
Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for many of America’s traditional alliances has been made starker by his embrace of authoritarian leaders in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Philippines. On his first foreign trip as leader, Trump was noticeably more relaxed in the Middle East than he was in Europe.
It is unlikely that any of Trump’s closest advisers will succeed in reversing the administration’s course. There are globalists among them, but they are not putting forward a coherent view.
Secretary of state Rex Tillerson keeps the media at arm’s length. Meanwhile, in a joint article in the Wall Street Journal, Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and national security adviser H R McMaster described the President’s outlook: “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
US allies look elsewhere
Far from remaining the world’s architect, or even its policeman, the administration wants the US to shrink back to become another combatant in a struggle for resources.
US allies have drawn the same conclusion. In Canada, the government is working around the White House by strengthening diplomatic ties to other levels of US government. Ministers have travelled all over the US, meeting mayors, governors and congressmen to promote Canada.
Following the Paris withdrawal announcement, Canada used these connections to ensure governors of left-leaning states would maintain their compliance. If the renegotiation of Nafta turns sour, Canada will pull the same levers in the hope of avoiding a US withdrawal.
European powers, too, are shifting their focus. The Macron-Merkel axis, combined with the impetus given to intra-EU ties by Brexit negotiations and a strengthening regional economy, will give the EU the confidence to distance itself from the US.
The US and Europe are miles apart on Russia. Trump still struggles to acknowledge Russian cyber attacks during the 2016 US elections, while Emmanuel Macron told Vladimir Putin directly that Russian state-owned media outlets were “agencies of influence and propaganda”. For as long as multiple official investigations continue into Trump and the Kremlin, Russia will remain a major stumbling block for US-European relations.
Despite Trump’s long-held admiration for Russia and his amicable meeting with Putin at the G20 on Friday, the bilateral relationship will remain in the deep freeze. Congress is strongly anti-Russia. A bill that limits the President’s ability to lift sanctions on Russia was passed by the Senate in June.
Meanwhile, the two states will remain on opposing sides in Syria. Russian participation in the war is driven by a desire to become a major player in the region. Scarred by its inability to cement democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is moving in the opposite direction.
Trump’s airstrike on a Syrian airbase in April was a one-off: in the US there is no appetite for another expensive war in the Middle East. But there is a risk of the US becoming dragged into the conflict against its will, if the Syrian regime captures territory given up by retreating members of so-called Islamic State.
Playing it safe on China
China also stands to benefit from a smaller US. Since coming to power, Trump has behaved much more moderately towards the world’s second-largest economy than during his presidential campaign. Talk of China “raping” the US economy has been watered down in the hope of gaining co-operation on North Korea.
China has treated Trump well: Xi Jinping’s visit to Florida, the approval of Trump trademarks, and an invitation to Beijing for Ivanka got relations off to a good start.
It is a sensible strategy. Xi wants a calm year ahead of a major political reshuffle later in 2017. After that, Xi will be in a stronger position to implement his own foreign policy goals, including some that contravene US policy. An emboldened Xi will not be bullied by US military power in Asia.
China will also pursue other internationalist policies to make itself the economic alternative to America: the Belt and Road Initiative will buy diplomatic support through investment, while China is likely to step into America’s shoes as a leader in clean energy investment.
Filling the US void
There is unlikely to be a flood of deal-making among US allies to fill the void created by the Trump administration’s policy shift. Important differences remain in the perspectives of Europe and China.
Europe wants greater reciprocity in the opening of the Chinese market, while China wants the EU to grant it “market economy” status. These squabbles mean Europe’s economic ties to the US are unlikely to be broken in favour of China in the near future.
Nonetheless, America’s European allies understand that the tide is turning, with calls from leaders like Angela Merkel to increase defence spending in the face of US withdrawal. Trump should be satisfied – he has long felt that the US does too much to benefit others.
It is less clear whether he understands that the US stepping back will, by necessity, involve a diminution of US influence